I figured I would begin with Yeats, since there are reputedly worse places to start in order to understand this whole Modernism schmegegge. Plus, he has the added bonus of being a major, major writer whose work I don't really know, other than a few isolated greatest hits. (As a matter of fact, I think I've avoided reading him until I had the opportunity to do something like this. Do either of you ever do that — save up authors you know you'll like, or that you know are important, until you can really focus in and give them your full attention? Stanley Cavell supposedly did this with Heidegger, waiting to read him until he was in his forties or something.)
And what do you know: the kid's pretty good! So far I am up through "Responsibilities" (published 1914) which I take it is kind of the middle of the middle phase. One thing that's been interesting is the sort of "a-ha" effect of recognizing Yeats' influence retrospectively on poets whose oeuvres I know quite a bit better: not just the obvious ones, like Pound and Eliot and Auden, but even people like Marianne Moore and Kenneth Koch, whose late poems especially are, I now realize, very Yeatsian underneath the surface craziness and Francophilia.
Anyway, I'll just note a couple of general features that strike me as I read, one thematic and one formal, possibly to be elaborated on further later:
1. Yeats' obsession with age — starting from very early on; there are poems from the perspectives of old men written when he was still very young, a habit he clearly passed on to Eliot. This is kind of a stock affectation among the Modernists for a while — I guess as a way of counteracting the youth-cult of Romanticism? Or am I missing some more obvious literary precursor to the tradition of voluntary senility?
2. His increasing, very admirable lack of fear about repeating words in poems. One of my favorite examples so far is from "The Secret Rose":
"… A woman of so shining loveliness
That men threshed corn at midnight by a tress,
A little stolen tress."
This is sort of a ballad-like device, but here it's not used as a refrain, nor is it exactly conversational: it's more like WBY was so pleased with the word he just wanted to use it again, immediately. Even better, perhaps, is this from "The Hour Before Dawn":
" … And he
Had dipped the wooden ladle deep
Into the sleeper's tub of beer
Had not the sleeper started up.
'Before you have dipped it in the beer
I dragged from Groban's mountain-top
I'll have assurance that you are able
To value beer; no half-legged fool
Shall dip his nose into my ladle
Merely for stumbling on this hole
In the bad hour before the dawn.'
'Why, beer is only beer.' "
To me this has a kind of mock-epic, even mythological, effect: "the beer" gaining, through repetition, something of the force of a Homeric epithet. But it also gives the impression of an extreme carefulness, like he isn't taking any chances and is deliberately restricting the range of his diction in order to get the rhythm absolutely perfect, beautiful, lifelike and metrical all at once. Which he does.
These are, quite possibly, two of the most obvious and stupid qualities of Yeats' poetry, but you've got to start somewhere, right? I don't know. What poems should I look out for?